Note from the LeftEast editors: this article has been published in collaboration with the Balkan web-portal Bilten.org. The original publication in can be found here.
Everything started in July 2014 after a fight in the corridors of the Albanian Parliament. Two members of parliament, Arben Ndoka and Pjerin Ndreu from the ruling Socialist Party, used their fists against a fellow MP of the oppositional Democratic Party, Genc Strazimiri. Some minutes before, Strazimiri was speaking against what he called the criminalization of the Parliament by the Socialist Party, by which he meant that several MP’s with criminal records had been elected. After the fist throws, the Democratic Party not only cried out against the violence against one of its MP’s, but interpreted the event as a symptom of a larger political problem. MP Ndoka was discovered to have been condemned by the Italian judiciary for being part of a criminal organization dealing with illegal prostitution.
One year later, another event got public attention. Two other MP’s of the ruling coalition, Tom Doshi and Mark Frroku, published a video registration claiming that a sicario had been paid by the Chairman of the Parliament, Ilir Meta of the Socialist Movement for Integration, to kill Doshi, known as a rich businessmen with connections to the criminal underworld. Despite the public uproar, the General Prosecution Office investigation reached the conclusion that the story was a hoax, and started prosecuting Doshi and Frroku for giving false testimony before court. During the investigations another scandalous fact emerged: several years ago, before entering Parliament, Frroku was condemned by a Belgian jury for killing another man.
The flow of events was enriched during the municipal elections of June 2015, when the Democratic Party claimed that at least two candidates of the Socialist Party, Artur Bushi in Krujë and Elvis Roshi in Kavajë, had been part of criminal organizations abroad.
These events triggered a huge political investment of the Democratic Party for the decriminalization of the Parliament. The Socialist Party was accused of harboring dangerous criminals who had helped it win the general elections of 2013 and the municipal elections of 2015. Even the embassies of the EU and USA in Tirana expressed their concern about the political situation, applying pressure for a legislative solution. After months of political debates, where the Democratic Party even claimed that a drug test for MP’s and members of the government should have been made obligatory – following allegations that Prime Minister Rama was a cocaine consumer – , the parties reached a compromise: they dropped the drug test and passed a law that forbids people who have been condemned for a variety of crimes to hold public offices, not only in the Parliament and the government, but also in the judiciary, and in public administration. The law forbids especially those condemned for serious criminal offences like terrorism, murder, theft, corruption etc.
But what is the socio-political signification of such a law? The first critique can be directed against its content. Beside the offences mentioned above, the law forbids public office to whoever is condemned for an offence that has led to more than six months prison time. When one takes a look at the Penal Code of the Republic of Albania, the section of “crimes against the state” comprises articles that can condemn people to more than six months for disobeying or offending the police during demonstrations or even organizing illegal demonstrations. It implies that members of radical social movements, who continuously clash with the police (even just verbally), could not only be imprisoned, but also prevented from taking part in the representative institutions of the state if in the future they decide to run in elections.
On the other hand, Albania has a record of not penalizing corrupt politicians. In twenty-five years of parliamentary pluralism only one important politician has been sentenced on charges of corruption, the ex-chairman of the Socialist Party Fatos Nano in 1993. Even in that event, a lot of people and serious human rights organizations claimed that it had been a political conviction in the power struggle between him and the Democratic Party leader and the President of the Republic of the era Sali Berisha. After being appointed as Prime Minister in 1997, even Nano was declared free of charges. From that time on, no member of parliament, no member of the government and no important member of the judiciary branch has been sentenced for corruption, despite the fact that Albania is considered widely as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe.
So from whom are they decriminalizing the institutions if important politicians are widely viewed as corrupt, but have a clean criminal record? To answer the question we have to make a short digression. The neoliberal reforms in Albania, as everywhere else, have led to poverty, massive unemployment and deteriorating social services. Immigration has been one of the social safety valves. At least one third of the Albanian working class works abroad, especially in Italy and Greece, and the remittances they send home are one of the most important sources of revenue for their poor relatives. On the other hand, economic and social desperation in recent decades have pushed a lot of young people to take part in criminal organizations – as small drug dealers or tutors of prostitution – abroad, especially in Italy, Belgium or the United Kingdom. The most successful ones have enriched themselves beyond any standard measure, returned home and started a new career as legal businessmen, in strong cooperation with public institutions in the privatization of natural resources and public enterprises. Transformed into local strongmen, these persons have also built a social net which is something between mafia and patrimonial relations with the local population. They are the ones who can find people a job in public administration or in their private businesses. They can give a little monetary help to common people in dire need etc. They have managed also to maintain relative autonomy from the political elite in Tirana, collaborating with them, but also keeping the requisite distance to promote their interests. As the electoral contests have become harsher as years go by, the political parties have been trying to attract them, initially by using them as strong men in rigging elections, buying or protecting votes; consequently by appointing them as candidates in elections. The reason why the majority of them are today part of the ruling Socialist Party parliamentary group is that before the elections of 2013 the then ruling Democratic Party leader Sali Berisha was widely viewed as an authoritarian leader whose political defeat could not be achieved without the collaboration with one part of the business underworld.
So these second-hand politicians are the prime targets of the current wave of decriminalization. On the one hand the political elite in Tirana struck a blow to those who until now enjoyed relative political autonomy. On the other hand, by taking measures against politicians with ordinary criminal records, they claim innocence for themselves. So the system gets a clean face by throwing out the most notorious evil-doers, and pushing under the carpet the fact that not only for the high-scale corruption, but also for its systemic background of neoliberal policies, those responsible stand in the peak of the Albanian political elite, whose judiciary records are clean. This way neoliberalism finds a temporary ideological way-out by making people believe that the cause of their misery does not stand in the neoliberal policies, but in the distorted way they are being implemented by common criminals.